Behind the scenes: Robot integration
October 30, 2023
By Sukanya Ray Ghosh
Navigating robot implementation challenges for optimum results.
Current robotics technologies have advanced to the point where a wide range of solutions are available for the unique needs of all types and sizes of manufacturers. However, integrating robots into existing production lines is not without its challenges.
Barrie, Ontario-based automation solutions provider Black Controls has expanded its capabilities to offer robotic integration in response to the growing market demand in this space. Matthew Heisz, programming team leader at the company, shares that currently, general part manufacturers most commonly demand robotic material handling or assembly solutions. For example, it could be a robot with a screwdriver, installing screws; picking and placing components and installing them into a larger component. The company also sees a demand for welding applications.
Improving existing systems
The Black Controls team recently worked on a robotics project for a customer in Scarborough, Ont.
Heisz shares that the customer had a robotic cell connected to an injection molding machine. The system was already implemented but they were encountering issues with product quality. As per the production process, the part was coming out of the molding machine and then a clip was installed in it. With the existing system, there was an issue with the clip installation. So, the manufacturer requested the Black Controls team to add camera inspection to validate the products. They also asked if it would be possible to make cycle-time improvements and process improvements as the equipment was not the most efficient.
The team immediately jumped into action.
“We went down to their facility along with another supplier and did a feasibility study for the actual inspection. We provided the quote to them. Once we received the job, we did a site visit and made sure that we had the latest programs of it,” says Heisz.
The Black Controls team added the camera and the logic to make it work. They added the routines and extra points to the robot, programming it to stop at the camera inspection position.
While the solution was a simple one, there were some challenges to be addressed during the integration process itself. There were issues with variations in the parts that were being produced. Potential delay between the parts coming out of the mold machine and being presented to the camera would result in inspection variations that had to be correctly analyzed.
Heisz notes that another challenge was that they weren’t working with machines that they had programmed. “You always struggle with learning other equipment’s program to figure out how best to incorporate your new logic into it,” he says.
He adds, “In the original program the robot profiles weren’t necessarily smooth. There were some opportunities with some handshaking where you had both robots sitting stagnant for longer than necessary or idle when they shouldn’t be. So, we took our time reviewing it, understanding the application, and then implementing the solution.”
The Black Controls team made the machine vision camera implementation a useful process so that the customer would not only see how many times a part failed but also understand which part was in front of the camera when it failed, giving them the means to track and display that information.
After the implementation, not only was the issue with the clip installation resolved, but the customer was also able to be confident that the parts they were producing were good. The was also significant cycle time improvement for one of the part variants.
“We were basically able to take it down to the point where the robots are always ready right as the molding process is finished. Previously, a mold would be sitting open for eight to 10 seconds with no action while the robots were still processing the previous parts,” says Heisz.
An AMR material handling project
A different type of robotics integration project that Black Controls recently worked on is installing automated mobile robots (AMRs) in a facility in Newmarket, Ont.
The ask of the project was to use AMRs to move products to and from the manufacturing facility’s warehouse and production lines. Heisz notes that AMRs were new technology for the Black Controls team. So, the initial step was to understand how they work. The technology was new territory for the customer too. Both teams had to work together through the implementation process to adapt the systems and make them as simple as possible to meet the customer’s requirements.
Since the AMRs were being used as part of a fleet, the Black Controls team ensured that proper communicating commands to the fleet were in place to call and get the status of the robots. The robots then required programming to accomplish their tasks and interact with the PLC for the system.
Heisz says that while the AMR implementation process was quite straightforward and simple, there were different layers to it that needed to be taken care of.
“We had to connect multiple lines to our PLC, and coordinate pickups and drop-offs between the warehouse and the station. There was a significant layer of communication logic that had to be worked through and implemented. All the communications to the fleet were done using an API structure. We added another piece of software that sat in between to communicate between our PLC and the fleet specifically for this. There was a lot involved in just establishing basic controls before we could develop the process and the application,” explains Heisz.
The manufacturer undertook the AMR project to replace human material handlers who were responsible for bringing the bins from the warehouse to the line. After adding AMRs, the employees could be deployed to do other tasks. In addition, the facility was able to increase throughput per shift. Where the employees were able to move 80 bins per shift, the AMRs managed to move 90 in a shift.
Heisz adds that there was a significant learning curve for the facility’s line workers. While the hand-off with their colleagues was a smooth process, they had to learn how to call the robots and move the bins as needed. They had to learn how the AMRs interacted with the system. The warehouse operators were also trained on how to read the information on the screen and work with the AMR fleet.
Heisz shares that Black Controls did not provide the robots. “The customer had done a concept trial with an AMR distributor. We came on as the integrator. So, there was a concept in place, with details and expectations on how the AMRs were to function. The implementation process was a team effort where we all worked to figure out which ideas would work and how we should approach things. The distributor was able to support the process as necessary,” he says.
The Black Controls team trained the customer’s line operators, team leads and maintenance staff to ensure that the AMR fleet would run smoothly. “We showed them how to fix the robots and recover them should they get stuck or are not able to manoeuvre. We trained them on how to address communication failures as well,” adds Heisz.
He adds that with any robotics project, there are always challenges like time associated with setting up robots. The integrator must figure out the communication and control structure. The key, he says, is to work with the customer to understand what they need and ensure that the project is a feasible one. | MA
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